My Favorite Cheese

Mozzarella is officially my favorite cheese. That’s because it’s what goes on top of my favorite food: Pizza.

Mozarella

Spaghetti Squash, Fire-Roasted Tomato Sauce and Freshly Shredded Mozzarella

Because I love pizza so much, I am very particular about the mozzarella I use. I prefer a very specific type of low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella that comes from a particular local supermarket because it has just the right hardness for grating, melts perfectly, pulls from the pie exactly the right way, and has the precise fresh taste that I enjoy most.

Over the years I’ve used all kinds of different types of mozzarella cheeses, both at home and in restaurants. For pizza, the best kind is low-moisture, part-skim that hasn’t been grated. It usually comes in a 16 oz. ball or log shape in a vacuum-sealed package.

The absolute worst kind you can use — and, ironically, the most common — is the pre-shredded mozzarella. This is the ubiquitous cheese you find hanging in plastic envelopes in any grocery store dairy case.

Unlike most other cheeses, mozzarella has a very high moisture content. So it doesn’t stay fresh for very long, especially after you grate it. Have you ever noticed that it will start to harden and curl up if you leave shredded mozzarella in the refrigerator overnight? Or that the cheese on frozen pizzas bears no resemblance to the freshly grated mozzarella used on a made-to-order pie?

Manufacturers of pre-shredded cheeses treat them with powders including corn starch, potato starch, and powdered cellulose, which is made from wood pulp that has been chemically treated to extract its fiber. These prevent the cheese from caking and also extend its shelf life. The result is a dull, dry, relatively tasteless cheese.

Believe it or not, many pizzerias, especially the big chains, use “bagged cheese” — the commercial equivalent of the grocery store variety — because of its convenience. But you can definitely taste the difference between a pizza made with freshly grated mozzarella and the-shredded kind.

Types of MozzarellLow-moisture, part-skim mozzarella is made from skim milk. If it hasn’t been grated will last at least a week in the refrigerator in its vacuum-sealed package. Once you open it, the cheese will lose its flavor quickly, so it’s a good idea to grate it and use it all right away.

I use a box grater and shred my mozzarella while the pizza dough is baking and the tomato sauce is simmering. This guarantees that all the fresh elements will be brought together at precisely the right moment for optimum flavor. (I’m a pizza freak, I know!)

Mozzarella that is made from the whole milk is softer and has a different flavor that low-moisture, part-skim variety. It’s the mozzarella you use for Insalata Caprese or to eat fresh, uncooked by itself. You can put it on pizza, but it has a wetter texture when it melts and lacks most of the appealing stringiness that makes pizza so delicious.

When you buy mozzarella made from whole milk, it usually comes in balls or ovals about the  size of a tennis ball and soaking in brine. You also can get “ovallini”, which is the same cheese except formed into smaller balls about the size of large marbles.

In either case, ask that the deli attendant to add a little of the brine — after they weigh the cheese, of course — so that it will stay fresh longer in your refrigerator. Try to use it within a day or two for optimal flavor.

I’ve used buffalo mozzarella in high-end restaurant kitchens. Contrary to what most people think, it’s not made from the milk of the American buffalo — which has been pretty much killed off — but from milk taken from the domestic Italian buffalo, which is more like a water buffalo or ox. It’s flavor tends to be more defined and a little grassier, but it’s cost prohibitive for home use, at least for me.

Smoked mozzarella has a rich, smoky flavor. The smoking process evaporates more of the liquid so it has a harder texture, almost like a brie. It’s very nice as a spread or in a salad, but is not ideal for pizza.

Freshly grated mozzarella, either the low-moisture, part skim variety or the fresh kind — is ideal for topping pastas and is a key ingredient in any type of parmesan dish such as veal parmesan, chicken parmesan, eggplant parm, etc.

Really nice, durable high quality mozzarella can be found in most major supermarkets or grocery stores. Stay away from the pre-shredded variety and you should be in good shape.

 

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Meat Free Mondays – Vegan Pizza

Veganism is something I think I could do, with one exception: Pizza.

My love for pizza is well-documented. I could eat pizza seven nights per week … and before I was married, I often did!

Vegan Pizza

Vegan Pizza

Living in Chicago, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to great pizza places. There are many world-class pizza places within delivery distance to my house: Palermo’s in Oak Lawn, Louise’s in Crestwood, Papa Joe’s in Oak Lawn, Lou Malnati’s, Vito and Nick’s (featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives), Home Run Inn, and Phil’s, to name a few.

Even the second-tier pizza places — Conte’s, Leonardo’s, Fox’s, Augustano’s, etc. — are far superior to the best pizza offerings in most cities. I’m not saying this to brag: It’s just the truth. Chicago is known for its great neighborhood pizza places.

Turning my back on pizza in Chicago would be like somebody in Indianapolis swearing off auto racing or somebody from Kansas City refusing to eat barbecue: It’s too hard because it’s what defines that city.

So when I found out that soy-based mozzarella “cheese” was an actual thing, my hopes that vegan pizza could be a reality were raised.

I found a place online called Food Fight Grocery where I could buy it — along with a lot of other cool vegan stuff — and placed my order. A few days later it arrived.

I have to admit that this tube of soy-based mozzarella sat in my refrigerator for a couple of weeks before I worked up the nerve to actually try it. I mean, what if it was really good? That would mean the final obstacle to my going completely vegan would be removed.

After all, the package stated that it tastes and melts just like real dairy-based mozzarella and that it even had the same stringy texture.

Finally, I tried it. Using my standard vegetarian pizza recipe — including the homemade whole wheat dough I always use —  I put together my pie.

057The first sign that something wasn’t right with this “cheese” was that you couldn’t grate it like you can fresh mozzarella. It wouldn’t hold together well enough to withstand the grater. It was too watery. So instead I had to cut it into discs.

Then, when I cooked the pizza, the cheese only melted slightly and wouldn’t get brown and bubbly, not even when I turned on the broiler for a couple of minutes. It stubbornly stayed the same white color.

Finally, it came time to taste it. The flavor, while mozzarella-esque, lacked the buttery undertones that real, fresh mozzarella has. In fact, it didn’t have much flavor at all.

The texture was similar to mozzarella, but despite what the packaging claimed, it didn’t have the stringiness and gooey texture we’ve come to associate with high-quality dairy-based mozzarella. While it wasn’t exactly like putting tofu on pizza and calling it cheese, it was close enough that I don’t think I’ll try it again.

In a way, I’m relieved because I don’t think I’m ready to commit 100% to vegan — or even vegetarian — lifestyle. Still, I enjoy cooking vegan much more frequently than ever before and am continually seeking out new recipes — especially on such great blogs as Becky’s at VegHotPot — so that I can cut down drastically on the amount of animal protein I consume.

But nothing will ever take the place of my Chicago pizza.

Thank God!

French Bread Pizza

Have you ever had this experience? You see something and you instantly say, out loud, “That’s what I want.”

This is what happened to me a few days ago when I saw this posting for French Bread Pizza by one of my favorite bloggers Mom Makes …

I’ve gone on record many times about my love for pizza, and I’ve written about so many, most recently just a few days ago. Maybe I should change this blog title to “Budget Pizza Blog”!

What can I say? I love pizza.

When I was growing up, I used to love Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza. They were a special treat in our house, and with five kids you had to stake out the kitchen as soon as my Mom arrived home from the grocery store or else you would be stuck making English Muffin pizzas. Yecch!

These didn’t last long in the McCullough household

The Stouffer’s products were cooked in the toaster oven, which used up so much electricity that you could run outside and watch the little wheels on the electric meter spin furiously every time you turned it on. 

Although I haven’t had a Stouffer’s FB pizza in probably 25 years, I remember them being pretty good. But this homemade version is incredible.

The difference is the homemade French bread. It’s an extremely simple recipe, but it transforms this pizza into something sublime. Plus this recipe yields two loaves of French bread, so there’s enough for garlic bread, French toast or just a warm loaf of fresh baked bread to share.

Since my wife isn’t into pepperoni, I made two different versions —  one pepperoni and one veggie. But you can top these with anything you want.

Finally, I contributed to this recipe by making my own pizza sauce. We just have so many tomatoes this year that I was just grateful for another way to use some of them.

French Bread Pizza

For the French Bread

3 cups Bread Flour (or All Purpose flour, but bread flour makes it so much better)

1 TBS Dry Active Yeast

1 TBS Granulated Sugar

1 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 1/4 cups Water (Baby bath temperature)

1 1/2 tsp Sea Salt

1. Add water to Kitchen Aid mixer bowl and whisk in yeast. Let stand for a minute or two for the yeast to activate. The liquid will start to get bubbly. Meanwhile, combine the flour, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Attach the dough hook to the mixer and turn the machine on medium. Add the flour mixture and knead until a soft dough forms. It’s ready when the dough pulls away from the walls of the bowl. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead a few minutes more by hand.

2. Add about 1 TBS EVOO to a clean mixing bowl and spread up all the sides and bottom with a napkin. Add the dough to the bowl and turn so that the outside is covered in oil. This is to prevent a skin from forming. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a draft-free place until doubled in size, about 90 minutes.

3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and carefully press out all the gases. Let rest 5 minutes, then divide into two peices. Using your hands, form each peice into an 18″x2″ loaf. Place onto a baking sheet lined with wax paper and cover loosely with the clean kitchen towel. Let rise until doubled in size, about another 90 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 375F. Carefully remove the kitchen towel and place sheet pan in the oven. Cook about 30 minutes or until loaves are golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool completely on cooling racks.

For the Pizza Sauce

6-8 Homegrown Tomatoes (I used Romas)

2 cloves Garlic

Handful of Fresh Oregano, leaves only (Also from our garden)

1 TBS Balsamic Vinegar

1 TBS Granulated Sugar

1/2 cup Water

2 TBS Corn Flour (or AP Flour)

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1. Remove the tomato skins by blanching the tomatoes. This means submerging them in boiling water for about a minute then plunging them into ice water. The skins will slip right off.

2. Add tomatoes, garlic, oregano, vinegar and sugar to food processor or blender. Pulse until mixture is liquified, then transfer it to a small sauce pan. Place over a medium heat until bubbling, then reduce to a simmer. Cook 5 to 30 minutes over a very low heat. To thicken, turn heat on high and whisk in flour, then reduce heat and simmer about five more minutes to get the flour taste out. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

For the French Bread Pizzas

1 loaf French Bread, cut all the way through horizontally to make 2 peices

8 oz Fresh Mozzarella, shredded

1 cup Pizza Sauce

Toppings of Your Choice

2 TBS Freshly Grated Parmesan Cheese

1 tsp Italian Seasoning

1 tsp Granulated Garlic

1/2 tsp Red Pepper Flake

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Place bread crust side down on a baking sheet and spoon sauce over the exposed surface. Top with toppings, then cover with mozzarella.

2. Sprinkle the parmesan, Italian seasoning, gran garlic and red pepper flake over the pizza. This bonus seasoning makes any pizza taste great, even frozen. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until top is brown and bubbly.

I served this with a small Greek salad, also inspired by Mom Makes’ blog.

 

Meat Free Mondays – Garden Pizza

As you may know, pizza is my favorite food.

If I could eat it for dinner every night, I would. In fact, before I met my wife, I did.

Because I love it so, I’ve written about pizza a lot, including my standard pizza recipe, this awesome Buffalo Chicken Pizza, and recently Chicago-Style Deep Dish Pizza.

With our garden in full swing this weekend, I decided to make a vegetarian pizza using ingredients we grew ourselves, such as these awesome green peppers …

… Yellow squash …

… And tasty jalapenos.

I even made a very simple pizza sauce out of some of our Roma tomatoes …

… And Greek oregano from our accidental herb garden, some garlic cloves, a little Balsamic vinegar, some sugar, salt and pepper.

Homegrown vegetables are the most delicious, so this pizza was amazing. Even our doggies enjoyed some.

Isabel “The Enforcer”

Bud, Bad Dog or “Misunderstood”, Depending Who You Ask

It’s that wonderful time of the summer when the harvest is so abundant there’s no way to possibly eat everything ourselves, so we desperately push our vegetables on relatives, friends and co-workers.

Still waiting for our watermelon to mature, however.

Best. Pizza. Ever.

Life is rich.

Meat Free Mondays – Fried Zucchini

Our dog, Bud, is a very bad dog. I’ve already taken him through dog school twice and now my wife is taking him through a third course.

It happens to be at a facility that’s about 4 miles from home. In between our house and the dog school there just happens to be one of the best pizza places on the South Side of Chicago, called Papa Joe’s.

Papa Joe’s is one of those restaurants that has been around forever. The house I grew up in is only a few blocks away and when I was a boy, whenever I smelled roasting garlic, I knew that they were making the marinara sauce at Papa Joe’s that day.

Through the years, we’ve gone there for countless birthdays, graduations, first communions, funeral luncheons and so on.

Every Wednesday night, since Sandi and Bud just happen to be going past Papa Joe’s anyway, I’ve been ordering a pizza for them to pick up on the way home. The first time I did this a few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the restaurant runs a promotion on Wednesdays: Order any large pizza and get your choice of any appetizer for free!

Whoa. Way better than a free liter of Diet Rite Cola!

Among the choices — garlic bread, tomato bread, fried mushrooms — the one I like most is the fried zucchini. The vegetable is cut into think strips, breaded and deep fried, then served with a roasted garlic dipping sauce on the side. Mmmmm.

It was delicious and almost momentarily made me forget about the amazing pizza that came with it. After I finished off the last peice, I knew I had to reproduce Papa Joe’s fried zucchini in my own home kitchen.

Sadly, I don’t have a deep fryer at home, so it was going to be a little more of a challenge. But with a little ingenuity, I was able to overcome it.

For the roasted garlic dipping sauce, I had only my taste buds to rely on because I didn’t have a recipe. Although I guess I could have asked my younger brother, who worked at Papa Joe’s in the early ’90s.

The sauce has rich butter and roasted garlic flavors, yet it’s thick and creamy. My guess was melted butter whipped into some mayonnaise with pureed roasted garlic cloves, a touch of cayenne, some cumin and a little water to adjust the consistency. I was close enough.

This appetizer can also be served with marinara sauce, if you prefer. Also, it can be made with yellow squash instead of zucchini, which is actually the way I went. The zucchini plant in our garden for some reason didn’t yield any fruit this year, but our crookneck yellow squash plant is doing fine, so I substituted. There’s really no flavor difference.

Fried Zucchini

1 large Zucchini or Yellow Squash, but into discs or sticks

1 cup All-Purpose Flour, seasoned with a little salt and pepper

2 Eggs, beaten

1 cup Bread Crumbs

2 TBS Parmesan Cheese

1. In one bowl, add the flour and season with a little salt and pepper. In a second bowl, add the eggs. In a third bowl, combine the bread crumbs and parmesan. One peice at a time, dredge the zucchini in the flour mixture, then cover with the egg mixture, and finally coat with the bread crumbs/parmesan mixture. Set aside on a plate. This is the three-stage breading method. It helps if you use only one hand for the dry ingredients and one hand for the wet ingredients, otherwise you have to stop and wash your Hulk hands every few minutes.

2. Put a cast iron pan over a medium heat. Add oil and let it get hot, but not smoking hot. Place each breaded zucchini into the pan, being careful not to splash yourself with the hot oil. Don’t crowed the zucchini peices, leave enough room in between so they can slide around. Cook them until nicely browned one one side, then flip them over and brown the other side, about 3 minutes per side. Remove to a plate lined with  paper towel to absorb the excess grease.

Because of the pan size, this recipe has to be made in batches. The zucchini will stay hot enough while all the peices are being cooked, but if you want to make sure, you can heat your oven to 200F and

Bad dog! But thanks for the pizza!

store the paper-towel lined plate in there until everything is done.

In a way, I’m kind of glad Bud is a bad student at dog school because it means I have an excuse to get Papa Joe’s pizza PLUS a free appetizer every week! It almost makes all the chewed-up shoes worth it!

 

 

Chicago Style Deep Dish Pizza

Visitors to Chicago make a point of stopping by some of the city’s most famous downtown pizzerieas — Uno’s, Due’s, Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s among them — to try some Chicago style deep dish pizza.

This dense style of pizza has a buttery crust and is so rich that it’s a challenge to eat more than a single slice or two. Still, it’s got great flavor and is a unique dining experience.

People from Chicago, however, hardly ever go to any of those places (unless they are entertaining visitors from out of town, of course) because deep dish pizza is so heavy and filling that it can only be enjoyed once in a great while if you want to avoid a heart attack.

For all the thousands of pizzas I’ve made at home, I have never attempted a deep dish pizza. Until now.

The interesting thing about deep dish pizza, other than its thickness, is that it is made upside down. Unlike an ordinary pizza, which has sauce on the bottom, toppings in the middle, and mozzarella cheese on top, deep dish pizza has the tomato sauce on the top and the mozzarella cheese on the bottom.

Another difference is that a deep dish’s crust has a much higher fat content than ordinary pizza crust. And it gets its buttery flavor from, you guessed it, lots and lots of whole butter.

And in contrast to the smooth tomato sauce used for ordinary pizza, deep dish has a chunky sauce made from roughly chopped tomatoes. And don’t forget the cheese. Lots and lots of fresh mozzarella and a thick coating of grated parmesan on top make this one of the cheesiest dishes you can make.

No wonder you can only eat one or two slices. This deep dish pizza ended up weighing about five pounds! Still, it was delicious and we were able to feed off it for several days.

Chicago-Style Deep Dish Pizza

For the Crust

4 cups All-Purpose Flour

3 TBS Yellow Cornmeal

1 tsp Sea Salt

1 TBS Instant Yeast

2 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

4 TBS Butter, melted

2 TBS Vegetable Oil

1 cup + 2 TBS Lukewarm Water

For the Filling

3/4 lb Fresh Mozzarella Cheese, grated or sliced thin

1 lb. Bulk Italian Sausage, mild or hot, cooked

28-oz can Diced Tomatoes

4 Garlic Cloves

1 TBS Granulated Sugar

1 TBS Italian Seasoning

1/2 tsp Sea Salt

1 cup Grated Parmesan

2 TBS EVOO

1. To make the crust, place the lukewarm water in the bowl of your Kitchen Aid then whisk in the yeast. Meanwhile, in a separate mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt and cornmeal. When the liquid begins to bubble, attach the dough hook to the mixer, turn it on medium speed, then slowly add the flour, butter, olive oil and vegetable oil and mix until a dough is formed, about 5 minutes. I usually knead my doughs by hands for few minutes afterwards.

2. Oil the sides of a mixing bowl then transfer the dough to the bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel and place the bowl in a warm, draft-free place so the dough can rise. After about an hour, the dough will have doubled in size. Punch it down, knead it a few more times then leave it on the counter covered with the kitchen towel to rest for a few minutes.

3. Spray a 14-inch deep dish pizza pan (I used my cast iron skillet) with pan spray, then add 2 TBS of EVOO to the pan and tilt it around to cover the bottom and partway up the sides with the oil.

4. Use your hands or a rolling pin to stretch the dough out into a circle that is slightly larger than your pan. Transfer it to the pan and press it down so that it fits snugly. Cover it with the kitchen towel and let it rise for about 30 minutes.

5. While dough is rising in the pan, preheat your oven to 425F. To make the sauce, drain the tomatoes well, then combine them in a mixing bowl with the garlic, sugar, Italian seasoning and salt. Mix well.

6. When dough is ready, use your fingers to press the bottom and sides back down, then fill the bottom with the mozzarella. If you are using freshly grated, you will need to press it down firmly into the bottom of the pan so there’s room for the other ingredients.

7. Next add the sausage.

8. Then add the tomato sauce.

9.  Finally add the grated parmesan and drizzle with the 2 TBS of EVOO.

10. Bake at 425F for 25 minutes or until the filling is bubbly and the topping is golden brown. Remove the pie from the oven and carefully transfer it from the pan to a cooling rack. Let it rest for at least 15 minutes before slicing it.

This pizza is extremely rich. It’s got three different kinds of oil in it, not to mention the fats from the cheeses. In Chicago, we are proud of our deep dish pizza. We just can’t eat it very often.

Meat Free Mondays – Garlic Bread Vegetarian Calzones

I’ve been working to perfect my calzones recipe lately and after a few calzone disasters, I finally found one that I’m happy with.

First of all, for those unfamiliar with calzones, they are simply pizza that is folded up into itself, sealed and baked. The result is a mouth-watering pocket of gooey mozzarella, tasty tomato sauce and whatever toppings you prefer.

You can make calzones with any pizza dough recipe you would like, but I’ve been making this garlic bread pizza crust recipe that I found on the wonderful blog “Mom Makes” because it is really flavorful and especially delicious.

For the filliing, I wanted to use all vegetables, but I was concerned that they wouldn’t cook soft enough sealed inside the calzone, so I gave them a quick saute ahead of time. The pizza sauce was my super easy and dependable pizza sauce I always make, but since I’m avoiding white sugar, I replaced it with the same amount of honey.

Finally, I used cute little mozzarella ovalini, which are balls of fresh mozzarella that are about the size of a golf ball. I just cut them in half and put a few in each calzone.

But what really makes this recipe something special is making a garlic butter sauce then brushing the calzones with it just prior to baking. It really brought the flavor to an entirely new level and is something I probably will be doing all the time from now on.

Garlic Bread Vegetarian Calzones

For the crust

1 cup lukewarm water (baby bath temperature)

1 TBS active dry yeast (or one envelope)

1-1/2 TBS honey

1-1/2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

2 cups all purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp sea salt

1 tsp granulated garlic

1 tsp dried basil

1 tsp dried oregano

2 TBS unsalted butter

2 cloves garlic, crushed

For the pizza sauce

8 oz can of tomato sauce

1 TBS Italian seasoning

1 tsp honey

For the pizza

8 oz Mozzarella ovalini, cut in half

1/2 yellow pepper, ribs and seeds removed, julienned

1/2 red onion, julienned

4 oz can of sliced mushrooms, drained

4 oz can of sliced black olives, drained

1. For the sauce, combine tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and honey in a small pot and heat until bubbly. Turn off and set aside. Meanwhile, saute the peppers and onions, add the mushrooms and olives for the final minute to heat through and set aside. Melt butter in a saucepan, add garlic and cook until the garlic just starts to brown. Turn off and set aside.

2. In Kitchen Aid bowl, combine water, yeast, 1-1/2 TBS of honey and EVOO. Let sit for about 10 minutes until it starts to foam, indicating the yeast has activated. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine flours, salt, garlic powder, basil and oregano and mix together with your hands.

3. Add nearly all of the flour mixture into the yeast liquid — reserving about 1/2 cup for kneading — and blend on medium using the dough hook attachment until a dough ball forms, about three minutes. Sprinkle some of the reserved flour mix onto a work surface then transfer the dough ball and knead adding additional flour mix as necessary until dough is springy and no longer sticky.

4. Grease a clean mixing bowl with about 1 tsp of EVOO and place dough ball into bowl, turning so that all sides are oiled. This prevents a crust from forming as the dough rises. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft free place until dough has doubled in size, about an hour. Punch down and let it rise again if you want, but it’s not essential.

5. Preheat oven to 500F. Knead dough for a few minutes and let rest for a few more. Then cut dough into four peices. Using your hands and a rolling pin, form each peice into a thin circle, about 8 inches in diameter. When all four circles are complete, add a small amount of tomato sauce into the center of each, then a small amount of the sauteed vegetables, then about 3 or 4 ovalini halves.

6. Fold each circle over so that it forms a half moon, then roll the edges in toward the center about 1/2 inch. Use your fingers to pinch closed all the way around. Transfer calzones to greased baking sheets and brush generously with garlic butter.

7. Bake for about 15 minutes or until brown and crusty.

What sort of pizza variations do you like to make? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!